A Lesson from Eugene's Mother
I had no expectations when I signed up to be an Uber driver in Hartford, Connecticut, and then in Knoxville, Tennessee, returning to my home state after nearly eight years. I’d walked out on my job as a Senior Editor for ESPN at thirty years old with enough money saved to just drive people around when I got bored. I didn’t have a partner or kids and hadn’t helped anyone but myself in longer than I care to admit. I’d gotten caught up in “white privilege” problems, or “white male” problems, or whatever qualifier you want to use to say that I’d quit appreciating my circumstances, started creating perceived chips on my shoulder to justify my own unhappiness with the above-average norm, frustrated with how simple and unsatisfying it’d been to go from lower-middle-class to a tad better than middle.
And that’s the beauty of Uber, at least for me, to discover society outside of the bubble, to see “Eugene” on one end, and he sees my cheesy grin on the other, two people who would’ve otherwise never met, never found any shared experience. Modern day hitch-hiking, only I wasn’t planning for Eugene to have his mother with him, too, and Mother had a cane and sat up front with me. She could hardly see over the dash.
“We’re headed to the credit union,” Eugene said from the backseat. “Then on to get something to eat, if that’s alright.” Eugene’s mother piped up: “I reckon this is the last time I’ll be gettin into town for a while. Surgery on Sunday. Doctor has to straighten out my intestines, found a blind loop of all things. Liquid diet starting soon, my last supper, I guess you’d say.”
She craned back to look at her son, affirming with an, “Isn’t that right, Eugene?” He said that it was.
Although the young man’s real name wasn’t Eugene, his was a name that Southerners tend to draw out on the first syllable, elongated the vowels until it sounds more phonetically like, “You-gene.” I told Eugene’s mother that I hoped the surgery took and helped right the pain, also falling into the cadences and diction of my upbringing, the place where “fixin to” doesn’t have anything to do with repairing what’s broken.
“I’ve worked awful hard most of my life,” she said, “and it’s caught up to me.”
“Heavy liftin,” I said.
“Oldest of five—helped Momma carry the little ones, movin furniture outside to sun. We’d help Granddaddy harvest tobacco and sack his potatoes—fifty-pound bags.”
“Tobacco farming ain’t easy.”
“No, it ain’t, slingin them stalks up in the barn to cure. My hands would be black as coal when we’d tie it off into bundles.”
“Makes your lungs look the same,” I said and let out a nervous laugh, like you do when the truth of what you’ve said hits too hard.
“I’ve been smoking since I’s seventeen.”
“Hard to keep from it back then,” I said.
“You’d get a high from just walking in the barn. It’d be December fore the leaves were dry—smelled awful good, though, like Christmas money.” She craned her neck and grinned.
Eugene’s mother wore thick glasses, and so did Eugene. In fact, Eugene might as well have been his mother: dark-headed, eyes as round as an owl’s, with about as much of a neck, only Eugene didn’t have a hump in his back. I figured Eugene’s mother suffered from osteoporosis, like my grandmother, not enough calcium in their bones, common in women of their generation. My grandmother didn’t harvest tobacco, though. Her back-breaking was done in the sewing room of a hosiery mill.
We arrived at the local credit union, and Eugene asked if I’d pull up far enough so he could use the drive thru, the one where you stick your deposit in a capsule and it’s shot through a pipe over to the cashier at the window. I could tell Eugene was a tad younger than me, and I wondered if his attachment to his mother had held him behind the times. The last time I’d inserted my paycheck into a slot was circa 2008.
“Sure do make cars boxy these days,” Eugene’s mother said, commenting on my Honda Civic. “They don’t make ’em like Chevelles anymore. My husband’s been dead eleven years. We used to love antique car shows, before Eugene came along.”
I told her that my father had me late in life, that he always preferred a Buick or a Pontiac.
“Smart,” she said, “American-made.”
My phone pinged. Eugene had entered the second destination: Austin’s Steakhouse and Homestyle Buffet. Eugene must’ve felt left out of the conversation because he started going on about some new navigation app that alerts you to where police are sitting and traffic jams, rerouting you in real time. Eugene said that users could even put in suggested routes, letting people know which way they think is faster, how to miss a stop light or two. Eugene’s mother and I listened, but we didn’t have much to offer, although I was a bit confused about Eugene’s interest in navigation when he was the one calling me for a ride.
As we rolled into the parking lot of the steakhouse, I told Eugene’s mother that I’d be thinking of her, the surgery, fixing the blind loop.
“Lord willing, I’ll be in my flower garden by July,” she said.
I glanced down at her cane and remembered how she’d barely made it down her front steps, wouldn’t have without Eugene’s extended arm. I wondered if Eugene was staying in the nest because of his mother, or if he simply didn’t have any other prospects. I nodded to them both.
“You have a good one, sweetheart,” Eugene’s mother said.
I idled at the front door of Austin’s Steakhouse and Homestyle Buffet and considered how genuine Eugene’s mother had been, how in a former life that would’ve pained me, for happiness to come so easy at an all-you-can eat steakhouse. Nowadays, I wish “sweetheart” from Eugene’s mother was enough to get me to tomorrow.